What is the Tarot?
This is a huge question that seems to baffle a lot of people, and I am still trying to get to the bottom of it all.
The Tarot is an ancient system of storytelling that has gone through its own evolution and metamorphoses over the centuries. I am going to offer a very brief window into this narrative, which barely even begins to scratch the surface. This is a story that could take a lifetime to unearth, if you are willing to dig deep enough.
Typically, when you peruse the Tarot section of a bookstore, you may come across a sea of voices and opinions when it comes to pinpointing the actual birthplace of this mystifying tool. I always like to flip to the history section of a new Tarot book in order to connect with the author’s stance on its lineage. And to speak frankly, I LOVE READING IT ALL. I soak it up, because every small crumb adds up to a much greater path. I like to divide the Tarot's history into two main categories when it comes to understanding its magic and potency:
- There is the - physical proof connection - paper trail, that paints a vibrant picture of how the images of the Tarot were first spawned. Typically, the most common belief is that the Tarot was first birthed in Italy, stemming from the Italian Tarocchi or Tarocco playing card games that emerged sometime during the fifteenth century. These are the preserved gems of art that illustrate an actually chronology of their graduation into tools of cartomancy and “divination.” We can see these card beauties in museums, private collections, and newly acquired reprints from ages past.
- There is the - mystical, esoteric connection - which to me, sounds a lot more fun and alluring. This is when the controversy starts to sink in, and you have to look at how you really want to perceive the Tarot. Is it a tool that connects to other realms? Does it in fact have origins in ancient Egypt? Did the god, Thoth, impart his wisdom in this visual litany? Was it given to us by star travellers? The Gnostic Christians? The Priests of Alexandria? The High Priestesses of the Essenes? Was it preserved by various sanctions, mystery schools, spiritual teachers, and throughout all of these possibilities; does it connect to our Higher Self, and the subtle energies that exist within and around us? From here, you can pick and choose which spiritual or historical backdrops work for you when it comes to reading your cards.
For me to get the most out of my Tarot decks, I like to think that I have a well-rounded, open mind when it comes to these two previous categories. Imagining the Tarot as a simple deck of cards just doesn’t light my fire. Regarding it as such, is like saying Dumbledore’s spell book is a mere pile of bound papers - that my Book of Shadows is a journal, and that there is no magic woven throughout either. For me, there is depth, blood, and illumination engrained in this Tarot story, and the fact that the cards historically emerged from playing cards, is simply one way of examining its language.
For the most part, there is much discussion and debate as to where and when the Tarot first materialized, as the word Tarot points to numerous possibilities in its origins. For instance, the Tarot has been referred to as the latin word rota, meaning wheel, the Hebrew word Torah, as well as the Egyptian words Tar (path) and Ro (royal) which translate into a Royal Path, perhaps alluding to an allegorical journey. Beyond this, there are also countless other connections to its name, which just adds to the complexity of it all.
When I first began digging into this lengthy and somewhat controversial story, I was shocked at how many parallels there were between the Tarot’s encoded language and a much deeper, ancient narrative. This was the stuff of legend. The Tarot has shown up in some of the oddest, most arcane places you could ever imagine, and has undergone both scrutiny and preservation over generations. It’s been said that the Tarot was used by priests and holy clergymen (yes, apparently early Christians may have created them as keys to holy scripture, before religious reformations drew lines in the sand). Conversely, there is also some opinion that the Church originally thought the cards were frivolous, mindless games, and therefore, condemned them as tools of darkness, but when you look at the actual images, you see pictures from the bible, so…yeah. There is that.
The cards have been burned in mass piles, carried in secret, revered and celebrated, used by mystics, healers, witches, doctors, philosophers, writers, gurus, psychics, yoga instructors (and anyone else you can think of that has perhaps needed just a little bit of inner guidance).
THE MAGIC OF IT ALL
If you were to look back a bit further before the Italian card game narrative, you would perhaps find lineages of the Tarot depicted throughout the ancient wisdom and mythos of the Romany people, who were most commonly known as the descendants of the Gypsies of India and Egypt. Parallel to this, there are also theories which suggest that the Tarot was introduced into Europe by the Knights Templars (word - Joan of Arc was part of this club), who throughout their campaigns in the Middle East, returned with sacred teachings that would have been considered highly controversial to the Church, as they were new, foreign methodologies. As a way of diverting attention from their newly acquired knowledge, they hid their secrets within the visuals of the Tarot, allowing their teachings to be carried on transparently.
What I find most fascinating within this timeline is an old tale described by French occultist, Antoine Court de Gébelin, who connected the Tarot to the last depicted remnants of the sacred biblical Book of Enoch (also known as Thoth or Hermes) which was preserved by a band of priests during the destruction of Alexandria's great libraries. Since as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the history of Alexandria, so alarm bells went off in my mind when I came across this bit of information.
THE GREATEST LIBRARY THAT EVER WAS
Alexandria was the largest repository of knowledge of the ancient world, acting as an epicentre and school of mysticism, philosophy, astronomy, and scientific discovery. Hundreds of cultures would come together in this place, and in its heyday, it was considered a mecca of celebrated diversity and learning, building the framework for some of the greatest schools and institutions today.
Located in Egypt, on the southern coast of the Mediterranean, it was here where thousands of parchment scrolls, books, and ancient writings were held in safety, acting as a sanctified, global reservoir. After the libraries were destroyed (by the early Christians and divided religious groups), the magical and philosophical lore of the Tarot may have been carried on through the descendants of the Serapeum priests who resided there (the Roma), eventually being introduced into Europe as keys for their wisdom and teachings. Today, perhaps the closest thing we have to the Alexandrian libraries can be found deep within the private collections of the Vatican, where thousands of ancient texts and artifacts are housed and preserved.
It is also after this period of transition from Alexandria into Europe that we can perhaps identify a direct link between the ancient Egyptian narrative and the existence of the Tarot in Italy by looking deeper into the rich and culturally diverse backdrop of the Italian Renaissance.
After the fall of Alexandria and then Constantinople, many scholars and religious and spiritual sects fled persecution, seeking refuge in Northern Italy. During this time, a great influx of esoteric, scientific, artistic, philosophical, and spiritual contributions were introduced to the area, giving rise to immense cultural changes and achievements. Traces of Egyptian, Jewish, Roman, Chaldean, and Greek heritages (to name a few), along with systems of Neo-Platonic philosophy, Alchemy, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Zoroastrianism and more, became influential within Italy's populace. Due to this vibrant setting, we can trace possible links within the symbolism of the Tarot from the cultures and mystery schools that were moving in and out of Italy during this great revolution.
THE ANCIENT EGYPTIAN CONNECTION
Although the Tarot cannot be identified as having originated as a system of cards during ancient Egypt, I can’t help but feel that traces of its wisdom have be found in a larger, overarching ancient history. When I started putting the pieces of this puzzle together, I saw links encoded throughout the stories I was reading. My love of archeoastronomy, the history of Atlantis, ancient civilizations, Sumeria, Celtic mysticism and mythology (and more), all drew parallels from one another, and somehow, the Tarot seemed to show up as a common thread.
THOTH & THE TREE OF LIFE
In Samuel Aun Weor's book, Tarot and Kabbalah, he describes the language of the Tarot along with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet as being given to Moses by the Archangel Metatron (AKA THOTH). This is an interesting thought, as in the Jewish apocrypha and Kabbilistic texts, Metatron is described as the Celestial Scribe who preserves all of God's sacred wisdom and knowledge. The twenty-two letters also correspond to the Kabblilistic system and Tree of Life as well as the twelve astrological signs, which later were added to the system of the Tarot.
If we take a closer look at Thoth's role throughout ancient Egypt, he was also known as the great holy scribe who wrote and preserved the mystical liturgy of the Emerald Tablets, the Seven Great Hermetic Principles, while also creating the great Hall of Records, which is said to contain the entire history and knowledge of Atlantis along with our Universe (and is supposedly hidden beneath one of the paws of the great sphinx). To Antoine Court de Gébelin, Thoth and Metatron were indeed the same figure, and are linked directly to the Tarot.